David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Pushed forward by press speculation, the UCAS Reimagining UK admissions report comes down hard on the side of post qualification offers (PQO).

The final decision on this matter comes, of course, from the Department for Education – that consultation trumps the work of Universities UK and the aborted Office for Students consultation – this report from UCAS will simply be another input to be evaluated after 13 May.

UCAS’ messaging is cautious – while in favour of improvements to admissions it feels that PQO offers benefits without the many problems that full post qualification application (PQAp) would bring. PQO is very much a middle ground between PQAp and the current system, and it is likely to be where the debate ends up. It’s another move in a decades-long story that sees admissions reform start ambitious but end up making sensible smaller changes.

The PQO model

Briefly, prospective students would make applications at round about the same time as now – the early part of the last academic year before their higher education course would begin. Throughout this year they would build relationships with the providers applied to, and the latter could make firm rejections allowing space for additional applications to be made. These ongoing engagements would include discussions about support needs, interviews and assessments, and the early parts of applications for student finance.

After exam results (likely to be earlier than the current system), providers would make firm offers that the student could accept or reject. There would also be a summer application system, similar to the current clearing, which would allow students to apply elsewhere.

All this is very loosely sketched, and UCAS suggest further consultation with the sector and other stakeholders with a view to the system being introduced in 2024.

The benefits

The benefits of PQO over PQAd are many – but the primary one cited is the chance for applicants to start engagement with their chosen provider early. Research released by UCAS alongside this report notes (as Wonkhe readers will be aware) that students who choose their provider later in the cycle (clearing entrants) are more likely to drop out than their peers who received and confirmed an offer earlier on.

However the maintenance of a “clearing”-like process is seen as another benefit – it is the right choice for some students, with UCAS highlighting those whose personal circumstances change after their initial application. Universities who “mis-price” their academic requirements and want to fill an otherwise unviable course would be another beneficiary.

With pure PQAd (post qualification admissions), the demand from applicants for information, advice, and guidance from schools and others would have a short peak immediately following results day. PQO spreads this out a little over the final year of level three study – allowing, hopefully, for more responsive advice about application.

The drawbacks

UCAS notes that two fifths of international students will have pending qualifications at the point they apply to a UK university. Currently these are managed alongside domestic applications – a change to the existing model would put the UK out of step with other possible study destinations, and making a different route available for international students makes things harder for providers.

Even though PQO allows for support to be provided to students throughout their final year, there will still be a new peak in demand after results day that will need to be resourced. Even the DfE consultation recognises this – but UCAS surveys note that 64 per cent of schools would find this problem insurmountable under PQAp, with a still notable 29 per cent feeling the same about PQO demands. This is a matter of staff time, funding will be required and given what we know of how DfE gets on with the Treasury right now, it feels unlikely.

And how would students apply to their courses of choice – and how would providers perform a basic sift on which applicants had the potential to benefit? That’s right – they’d use predicted grades (albeit not “official” predicted grades, perhaps) as a big part of this process. Making a decision to make an offer to a student without a basis in an understanding of likely academic capabilities feels like the kind of thing the OfS would send you a snotty letter about.

Some more drawbacks

Although DfE is keen to underline that all devolved administrations are in favour of admissions reform, Scottish students currently apply cross border with a mixture of achieved (Higher) and pending (Advanced Higher) qualifications. And for applications within Scotland, we need to manage student number caps set by government. It seems regressive to make places available to those who manage to get through on the phone first – and you may already be wondering about other capped courses like medicine.

The report doesn’t mention accommodation, but this would be another issue. If you don’t know for sure where you will be studying till August, that’s the first point you can sensibly start looking for a place in halls. Again, this is first come, first served – which seems a poor way to allocate a scarce resource.

Finally – and fascinatingly – what’s to stop a university opting out of the PQO system and running admissions in a way that suits them. One could imagine arts providers (who would prefer admissions by portfolio) and music, dance, and drama providers (who would probably be keen on auditions) going in another direction – and as UCAS isn’t a regulator there would be nothing to stop them. Others, keen on knowing stable student numbers earlier in the year, may follow. The UUK proposal for an admissions code of conduct is noted, but this is non-binding – and the Higher Education and Research Act (section 2, paragraph 5(e)) prohibits the Secretary of State (and arguably, OfS) from getting involved in how admissions are managed.

What’s the next step?

UCAS is clear that there is a lot more consultation that needs to happen, and the 2024 start date feels like the very earliest possible commencement. Even UCAS’ own response to the DfE consultation, in May, will be preceded by more sector consultation.

But the section of the report on the rationale for a change to the system is perhaps the most pertinent contribution at this point. The three DfE motivations – inaccuracy of predicted grades, the simplicity and the transparency of a PQAd system, and removing unconditional offers – are noted, but in each case the raw data undermines the claim.

For instance – most grades are over-predicted, not underpredicted, and underpredicted grades are proportionally and numerically more likely among the most advantaged (POLAR4 Quintile 5) applicants. Unconditional offers – as we have seen – do present a risk to student continuation but only as much so as choosing a course later in the cycle, something that we seem curiously keen to get more students to do. Plus there is nothing inherent in PQO that would prevent a provider making an unconditional offer – or, more properly, an offer based on non-qualification criteria.

And the complexity angle is a curious one too. Any system is complex when you face it for the first time – and most applicants only go through one application cycle. Clearing (I have no offers and I want a place) and Adjustment (I did better than I expected, I want a better place) are not difficult concepts to explain. And the fact that nearly half of UK HE students are on courses that they didn’t meet their required grades for suggests an issue with A levels, not admissions.

If you read this report in a certain way, it is very easy to construct an argument for keeping the current system as a way to secure all of the benefits of PQO over PQA, with none of the drawbacks.

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